AUGUSTA, Maine — President Barack Obama has called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year, but the proposal has divided Maine’s congressional delegation and the Senate may not even consider the measure this year.
“Paycheck discrimination hurts families who lose out on badly needed income,” Obama said earlier this summer. “With so many families depending on women’s wages, it hurts the American economy as a whole. In difficult economic times like these, we simply cannot afford this discriminatory burden.”
He is supporting the House-passed measure, which was approved 256-163, after passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which was signed into law last January.
“We ought to make sure that these issues can be dealt with quickly,” said Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who voted for the bill. “Whether it is allowing them to sue or giving the Department of Labor greater authority to make a determination.”
He said that nationally a woman is receiving only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same job. He said that is an inequity that has been allowed to go on far too long. He said if the Senate has a better idea, they should pass their own version so differences can be ironed out in a conference committee.
A study by the American Association of University Women indicates Maine is doing better overall than the nation, with women earning 80 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same job, but the study indicates a greater disparity among the college educated. Using census data, the study found among full-time, year-round college educated workers over 25 that women were getting only 71 cents for every dollar a man is receiving for the same job.
“When you are talking about paycheck fairness, it’s hard to worry about whether or not this will harm businesses that are discriminating, actively, against women to earn an equal wage,” said Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree. She said the Senate should follow the House lead and pass the legislation soon.
But Maine’s two U.S. senators are wary of the version of the bill that was passed on a bipartisan basis in the House.
“It is broad in scope and unprecedented in some respects,” said Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe. She said the bill removes the caps on monetary damages that a person could receive if they successfully sued a business for pay discrimination and that would raise the cost of doing business for all companies. She said that getting insurance to cover such claims would be very difficult without a limit on damages.
“The paycheck fairness act is understandably attempting to address an issue, [but] it can already be addressed through existing legislation,” Snowe said.
She said a person can already file a lawsuit under the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Ledbetter Act that took effect earlier this year.
Like Snowe, Republican Sen. Susan Collins voted for the Ledbetter Act but does not believe additional legislation is needed for women to achieve pay fairness.
“I am concerned that it would impose excessive litigation on to the small-business community,” she said. “This bill appears to go way beyond the Lily Ledbetter Act and I am concerned what the impact would be.”
Collins said business groups such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses have met with her to oppose the legislation because they believe it will result in a lot of unnecessary litigation. She said that with small businesses struggling in this recession, it is not the time to unnecessarily increase their costs of doing business.
“I still need to look more thoroughly at the legal implications,” she said, “but right now I do not think it should be our focus in the remaining weeks of this session.”
Supporters of the bill, like Pingree, disagree and want the Senate to consider the legislation before the election break next month, or at the latest during the post-election session.
“If there is litigation in the future, that is minor compared to making sure that people get fair pay for the work that they do,” Pingree said. “It is also important to say that this only applies to big business, this does not apply to the sandwich shop around the corner.”
Under Senate rules, it will take 60 votes to end debate on the measure and bring it to a vote. With both Collins and Snowe opposed to the bill, it makes it less likely the Democrat majority in the Senate will get a GOP vote to end debate.